Papers published by Sage on Friday show that, at the peak of the epidemic, transmission within hospitals was believed to account for up to 22 per cent of hospitalised patients and up to 11 per cent of deaths.

The research, prepared for the Cabinet Office, says these figures do not include staff or those attending outpatient appointments, meaning they are “very likely to be an underestimate”.

The failure to stem the crisis has prompted a letter from the NHS England medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, instructing hospitals to “minimise” close contacts between staff, with workers told to “avoid congregating at central work stations” and take staggered staff breaks. 

One senior NHS manager said: “The situation is ridiculous. It seems hard to believe, given that the whole country has been talking about social distancing for months, but it is only now that some NHS trusts are really thinking about basic measures like ensuring nurses aren’t all hanging out together.” 

Hospitals and care home outbreaks ‘leave UK stuck’

Health chiefs have written to every hospital and GP practice, urging them to make changes in order to reduce levels of transmission of coronavirus within clinical settings.

From next week, all staff, patients and visitors will be required to wear masks in hospitals.

The move was prompted by fears that Britain remains stuck in lockdown because it has been unable to get a grip on outbreaks in hospitals and care homes, which leak out into local communities and increase the risk of a second wave.

While the UK recorded its first case of Covid-19 in late January and entered lockdown on March 23, an investigation by The Telegraph reveals:

  • It was not until May 18 that health chiefs finally issued guidance advising NHS staff on how to ensure social distancing;
  • More than one in 10 hospital deaths from Covid-19 involved those who had been admitted without the virus, new evidence suggests;
  • Concern from Government advisers that health workers adhering to social distancing rules on the ward are behaving differently “backstage”, with the virus spread during coffee breaks and huddles;
  • Documents showing that the disastrous decision to stop routine testing and tracing followed advice from Public Health England (PHE) that “transmission chains in closed settings such as care facilities do not have the same implications as those chains in the community”;
  • Research showing more than 40 per cent of frontline healthcare workers at one major London hospital have been infected by Covid-19 – more than twice the level at other large European centres.

The letter from Prof Powis instructs health service hospitals to take “further action to tackle infections acquired in the NHS itself”.

The letter, also signed by the NHS chief nurse and operating officer, spells out the importance of “all staff adhering to social distancing (two metres) wherever possible in non-clinical areas”.

It follows growing concern that coronavirus is spreading within hospitals because Britain failed to introduce basic measures, such as masks, routine staff testing and strict social distancing, which have helped to contain the virus in other parts of Europe. 

The instructions follow the infection of 100 staff at Weston General Hospital, which forced its closure to new patients for two and a half weeks.

Asked about surges of infections in hospitals, Prof Powis said that, as community incidence was falling, the focus would be on “individual outbreaks” where they occur.

He said all hospital workers will wear masks regardless of whether they are on frontline duties in a bid to reduce infection rates. 

“When you move out of the ward areas where PPE [personal protective equipment] is worn and into the corridors and spaces where sometimes it can be harder to manage social distancing, it’s important that the use of face masks is there to further reduce attack the chance of transmission,” he said.

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